We had a bad start to Colombia because of the whole shipping experience. Barranquilla doesnít really have a lot to offer to the tourist apart from a really bad monumental statue of Shakira because she was born there. Once we got the van back we left immediately and drove to Cartagena. Cartagena is a beautiful city and was a really nice surprise for both of us. During the colonial period the Spaniards constructed elaborate walls encircling the town which helped to save all the original buildings during subsequent sieges. We drove within the walls hoping to get parking but the police told us we could only park outside the walls. We found a good parking spot for the night and about twenty minutes later we saw the French driving out of the walled section escorted by the police! We were literally just wondering where they were. The boot is still been passed over and back. We borrowed suitcases from the French for the flight to Colombia and returned the boot in one of the suitcases. Since then, we found it on our bonnet again. We spent the following day walking around the old section. The buildings and streets were fabulous and had a real European air. I was delighted to see that the accordion is one of the national symbols of Colombia and can be seen on all the souvenirs. Itís a three row button accordion so Iím sure itís probably completely different to play than the Irish two row. Iíve bought a few CDís so maybe Iíll chance my arm at learning a few tunes.
We left Cartagena and continued south with no real game plan. After a day of driving we ended up pulling into a gas station in Sincelejo for the night. The staff were lovely and were really interested in our van and travels. They were delighted to see foreigners coming to Colombia. They told us about a fiesta that was starting the following day and said we should go see a bullfight in the nearby arena. We decided to stay for it and they happily offered to watch our van and dog for the afternoon. The Colombians have a cowboy hat which is unique to the country and another one of their national symbols. We bought a couple and headed off for the bullfight. Neither of us really knew what to expect and it was a real treat. There were hundreds of food stalls set up everywhere around the arena and other stalls selling hats and ponchos. The street food in Colombia has been great. They mostly sell ďempanadasĒ which are like a deep fried corn pastry filled with anything from chicken, beef, potato, vegetables and cheese. They also sell grilled meat on a skewer with a boiled potato stuck on the top. Beer is plentiful so we got a couple and headed off to find the entrance. A couple of armed cops had been eyeballing us, although Jimmy reckons they took a shine to me. They came over to us and motioned us to follow them. They escorted us the whole way into the arena. As soon as we entered the gates there was about 8 girls lined up handing out free shots of vodka. The arena itself looked like it had just been put together with scraps of wood. Iím sure OSHA would have something to say about the safety of it. We thought we would see just one matador in the ring with a bull. Instead there were probably about 150 people in the ring, some of them were dressed up but mostly they were dressed in normal clothes. Some people were on horseback and chasing after the bull. They changed the bull every half hour and thankfully they didnít kill him. They basically chased the bull around the ring and when he charged everyone scattered in all directions. The men on horseback had spears which they poked the bull with and some of them did stick it into the bull. Jimmy was at a real bullfight in Mexico years ago where they did kill the bull and he said it was horrifying. It was enough for me to see this kind of fight, I donít think Iíd like to see the bull been killed. The stands were packed and every 20ft there was a different band playing dressed in different uniforms. The music was excellent. One group was really good but looked a little out of place. We went to chat them and found out they were from France. Their friend in France is from Sincelejo and arranged for them to come over and play at the fiesta. We spent three hours wandering around the stands and watching the fights. Some people had actually set up a little fire in the ring and were cooking food! We laughed hard when we saw the bull charging and knocking everything over. Underneath the stands there were hundreds of more people watching through the wooden fence. When the bull charged this was where people were running to desperately climb the fence to safety. We decided to go down below and hang out with the people there. It started to spill rain and there was nowhere to go for shelter. The water was flowing down through the stands. We had great fun chatting the locals there and their beer was cheaper than up in the stands. Everyone was drinking naggings of local whiskey also. It was just one big party and we were the only gringos there. Jimmy decided then he wanted to go in the ring and off he went over the fence! My heart was in my mouth as with all the rain it had got really slippery out there. I donít think Jimmy realized either how fast the bull was actually running. He enjoyed the madness for a few minutes and then came back across the fence. The locals all thought this was hilarious. Then a big commotion broke out and all the men were stamping on the ground. It turned out it was a small black snake but the locals said it is really dangerous and poisonous! They managed to kill it and throw it away. We have been terrified ever since of coming across snakes. The rain never stopped for the rest of the evening and it wasnít just a drizzle, it was a downpour. We walked back through the stalls and it was just one big mudslide. We were soaked right through and covered in mud.Despite the rain it was a brilliant day out and a great experience. We walked back to the gas station and the staff were so excited to hear what we thought about it. The fiesta was running for another six days and apparently every day the bulls got more crazy and angrier. One day was enough for us so we kept moving the next day.
We were spoilt in Central America as all the countries are so small and we didnít have to drive as much to get to our next destinations. Now it feels like we are back in Canada. Colombia is massive and a full days driving just seems like an inch on the map. We left Sincelejo and it took us two days to get to Medellin which didnít look that far on the map. We drove through some fabulous countryside though. It is really mountainous and so green, a lot like parts of Ireland. We passed through some lovely quaint little towns. Everyone is so friendly and genuinely excited and delighted to see us in their country. Any time we stopped for a break we had swarms of kids around wanting to see the inside of the van. Every half hour or so there were armed police on the roads even in the middle of the mountains. Most of them didnít seem bothered with us and the ones that did stop us just wanted to see our documents and have a chat about where we are from. Itís funny as soon as we say Ireland; they want to know if we are from the north or south. Then they want to know is it still dangerous in the North. We thought it hilarious that Colombians are asking us if Ireland is dangerous. It seemed the police were more interested in searching the local cars and trucks. It looks like they are genuinely trying to clean the country up and make it safe for tourists. I know our families were worried sick about us driving through Colombia and we were a little anxious ourselves. But it turned out to be an amazing country and the friendliest people we have met so far. Twice when we were driving our front hubcap fell off. The first time the car behind us stopped to look for it as well with us. We couldnít find it so we kept going; weíve already lost two others. About ten minutes later the car came up behind us beeping their horn and stopped us. They had kept looking for the hubcap and found it for us! We couldnít believe it. Two days later the exact same thing happened. We passed through one section of the mountains that was really poor. The people were literally living on the side of the road in makeshift shacks. I caught a glimpse inside some of the shacks and all they had was a bed made out of bags and a little fire going. It was really sad to see some of the kids without even shoes to wear. They all came running and waving for us to stop and give them money when they saw us coming. We never did find out what the circumstances were for these people. As soon as we passed the town of Yarumal it seemed the standard of living went up again. Everyone was farming the land. It was mostly dairy farming and been from a farm myself I had great appreciation for the fields of Frisian cows. No milking machines here though. Back to the old fashioned hand milking and leaving the churns at the gate for collection.
We got to Medellin and just stayed one day and night. Itís a lovely city and really well kept. The taxi drivers let us park at their rank in front of a supermarket for the night and it was perfectly safe. We wondered how safe it would be at a taxi rank in Dublin these days. There were a few attractions there like a botanical garden and aquarium but we just went for a walk around the city and decided to keep moving the next day. We wanted to go to Bogota but when we got to the first toll booth of the main highway outside Medellin the attendant said the road was closed due to landslides. He showed us on the map the back roads we needed to take. However, according to our map some of the roads he said to take were non-existent. In the meantime a family from Bogota was in the same predicament for their drive home. They very kindly offered to let us follow them as they knew the back roads well. We were glad as we definitely would have made a few wrong turns along the way. Even though we couldnít drive as fast as them, the man drove slowly and pulled in anytime we went out of his sight. At 5pm we found a hotel with a huge parking lot and swimming pool. They said we could stay no problem. We were still another six hour drive from Bogota and we explained to the family that we donít drive at night and let them continue on. They were surprised that we would think it is dangerous to drive at night but we told them it was our number one rule. We stayed at the hotel for another night to give ourselves and Francie a break from the driving. It was in the middle of nowhere but we still attracted a bunch of local kids who wanted to see the van and play with the dog.
From there, we drove to Zipaquira which is about 50km north of Bogota. The Irish couple we met in Guatemala had told us about this place. It is a beautiful little town and the main attraction is the nearby salt mines. The mines date back to the Muisca peopleís period and have been intensively exploited, but they still contain vast reserves. They are still mining 600 tons of salt there every day. The miners built a cathedral underneath the huge mountain of rock salt but it collapsed. They built another one and opened it to the public in 1995. It is in the heart of the mountain, 180m underground in the mines, and is carved out of solid salt. Its 75m long and 18m high and can accommodate 8,400 people. Along the walk to the cathedral they built the Stations of the Cross out of solid salt also. We went on a guided tour with an English speaking guide. There was a Lithuanian couple, Australian girl and an ADD Canadian man in the group. The Canadian kept us amused with his constant stream of questions. He had barely listened to the answer of one and he was asking another. The cathedral was fabulous and they even have baptisms and weddings down there. We really enjoyed it but because it was so dark our photos donít really do it justice.
The next day we drove into Bogota. Itís at an altitude of 2600m so it was fairly cold and raining. Our guide book said we might experience altitude sickness but we were fine. The city center divides the metropolis into two very different parts. The northern sector consists mainly of upmarket residential districts, while the southern part is a vast spread of undistinguished lower-income suburbs. We drove in from the north side and didnít venture to the other side. The main Plaza de Bolivar is the heart of the historic section. In the Plaza is the Palacio de Justicia. It replaces an earlier building that was taken by the M-19 guerillas in 1985 and gutted by fire, which left more than 100 dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices. After hearing this, we understood why the security in the area was so high. They searched us and my handbag just to walk down beside the building. Just east of the plaza is a lovely colonial quarter called La Candelaria. All the parking lots had height restrictions and it took us nearly two hours to find a place to park. We finally found a small lot in front of the university. The owner lived beside the lot and agreed to let us park and sleep in the van. Some of the other parking lots that we would have fitted in wouldnít allow us stay in the van. The owner had security gates which he would close at night. We were delighted to be able to stay right in the city center and have secure parking. We enjoyed a long walk around the city with Francie exploring all the lovely little streets. We sampled more street food which seems to keep getting better. One stall had an entire pig roasted and stuffed with the shredded pork and stuffing like home. It was gorgeous. We also tried a dessert which consisted of two wafers glued together with a mixture of caramel, jam, cheese and cream. Colombia has an amazing selection of fruit also that we have never seen before. We have already sampled eight fruits that we had never even heard of.
From Bogota, it took us another two days of driving to get to San Agustin. Again we drove through some beautiful countryside and towns. It is really mountainous which is hard on the van. We usually can only do about 45mph and have to keep stopping every few hours to let the engine cool down. We donít mind though as it gives us a chance to really see the country. When we got to San Agustin, a lady at the tourist office guided us to a lovely hostel a few miles outside the town where we could park. It was in the country with plenty of room for Francie to run and finally we could have hot showers. We havenít had a proper hot shower since Gavinís house in Panama! We have just got accustomed to cold showers when we can find them. The owner was lovely and told us that he only saw two campervans passing through last year and that we were the first this year. San Agustin is one of the continentís most important archaeological sites. The area was inhabited by a mysterious pre-Colombian civilization that left behind hundreds of free standing monumental statues carved in stone. The site was a ceremonial center where locals buried their dead and placed statues next to the tombs. A guide told us that they discovered and analyzed some of the remains that were found and there was evidence that brain surgery had been carried out! This was back in the 6th-14th centuries AD which I thought was amazing. So far, some 500 statues have been found and excavated. We only spent two days exploring the area but could easily have spent longer. The first day we went on horseback with a guide through the mountains where there were many statues scattered around in different areas. It had rained heavy the night before so the tracks were extremely wet and slippery. Of course I got landed with a nut job of a horse. Jimmyís horse insisted on been ahead of the group but my horse didnít like this and kept trying to nudge ahead of him. We came to a really steep down slope when my horse decided to make his break for the lead. He took off galloping down this hill, half sliding and I was sure I was going to be thrown off. Jimmy was laughing until he realized the speed the horse was going. Luckily he stayed on all fours until we got to the bottom and my hat was the only thing that fell off. We met a woman later that wasnít as lucky and whose horse fell down the same slope landing her into the pile of mud. The scenery along the way was beautiful and it was so relaxing trotting along and taking it all in. Our guide was really good and we spent four hours going from one archaeological site to the next. The following day we went to the 78 hectare Archaeological Park where there were loads more statues, tombs and burial sites. Francie was allowed in so we spent five hours leisurely walking around. The town itself was really pleasant and again everyone was very welcoming. They are very proud of their country and realize there is a bad perception of Colombia, so they are very interested in knowing that we are been treated well by people and that we will past the good word on.
From San Agustin, unless you want to end up in the middle of the Amazon Basin, there is only one road heading west back to the main highway to Ecuador. We were told it was 120km to Popayan so we headed off thinking we had a 3-4 hour drive ahead of us. Just as we left the town we met the French family on the road. We hadnít seen each other since Cartagena as they took a different route to us. We swopped stories and they prepared us for the drive ahead. It had taken them 6 hours because it is not paved and there are really bad potholes. They even broke their septic tank along the way and had to have it welded back on. We gave them the details of the hotel we parked at and said our goodbyes, although we are sure to keep meeting along the way. We started out on the road at 12.30pm and it was 7.30pm that evening when we arrived in Popayan. 7 hours to do 120km! It was worst than any bog road in Ireland. The van was constantly been shook from side to side and we literally could not do anymore than 6-10mph. The road went through the mountains and there was only one village and a few houses along the way. It was a bit eerie in sections as it had a real jungle feel to it and we really felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. The FARC are known to be still existent in this area and that is probably why the government wonít pave the road. Out of nowhere, we came around a bend and were stopped by six guys in military uniform. The FARC wear a similar uniform but we had no way of telling the difference. The ring leader leaned in Jimmyís window and started asking us where we were from, how many people in the van and where we were going. All the time he was holding an opened pen knife in his hand. He wasnít pointing it at us but just letting us know it was there. There was also a machine gun set up on the side of the road ready for action. They werenít exactly smiling; it was more of a sneery grin that could probably disappear in an instance. Francie was flipping out barking at them which made us more anxious as we knew he must have sensed badness off them. After we answered his questions he told us to go on and we were so glad. Both of us have never felt so freaked out. Usually the army has cones set up on the road with signs noting a military checkpoint. These guys had no signs and were just there in the middle of nowhere. Also, they didnít have the Colombian flag patch on their uniform which regular army officials have. I later read that the FARC have been known to stop tourists on this road but usually out of curiosity and have not been a threat to tourists. Nevertheless, we continued on at our speedy 6mph and kept going until we got to Popayan and back to civilization.
So we are in Popayan now catching up on some internet work and phone calls. We are about a two day drive from Ecuador where we hope to meet up with the German couple. They sent us an email and thankfully they got the van back the day after us and high tailed it to Ecuador. We are glad though that we didnít let the shipping experience determine our opinion of Colombia. It has been really enjoyable to drive through and take our time to see the sights. It is without a doubt a beautiful country with really friendly people. Apart from Guatemala, it is now our second favorite country so far.